Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Too Like the Lightning

(January 2017)

I enjoyed this book. In places I enjoyed it very much indeed. Please bear that in mind, as I’m going to spend most of what follows talking about its many faults. Though to be honest, they’re all really manifestations of one fault. It is all, appropriately enough, just a little too… a little too.

Let’s start with the style, which explicitly apes the overwrought formality of many 18th century novels. It’s something you definitely need to be in the mood for (it was only at the third attempt that I made it beyond the first couple of pages), but then that’s true of a lot of things. More specifically, as I’ve mentioned before, writing in the style of a bygone age necessitates a tricky balance between being recognizably of that style while avoiding the aspects which caused it to fall out of fashion in the first place. It’s a little too faithful in the latter regard: a little too arch; a little too florid; a little too fond of lengthy digressions on metaphysics, social theory, and various characters’ fashion sense that break the fourth wall and seem to interest the writer more than the reader.

Which brings us to the narration, and the narrator themselves, who is a little too obviously unreliable. Mycroft Canner is writing, seemingly under official injunction, what he describes as an ‘historical record’ of a key week in the history of 25th century Earth. This gives him licence to embark on an extended infodump-cum-worldbuilding spree, which occupies essentially the entire book (this is the first half of a duology). He describes a global society which, in the aftermath of a devastating religious war, has remodeled itself along principles from the Enlightenment. Humanity has further divided itself up into seven ‘hives’, each with its own system of government: the mercantile Mitsubishis (painted with a little too much similarity to 1980s ‘Yellow Peril’ hysteria about Japanese economic influence), the empathetic Cousins, the imperial Masons, you get the idea. Initially it all seems a little too utopian, and wouldn’t you guess, the cracks very quickly being to show. More transparently, Mycroft is a ‘servicer’: a criminal conducting what we might generously call community service, but is more realistically indentured slavery. The nature of his crime is withheld a little too long, so by the time we get to the reveal we’ve already reconciled ourselves to the fact it was either utterly trivial or gruesomely horrific.

Mycroft himself (whose name, like practically everyone else’s, is a little too significant) is a polymath whose linguistic and statistical skills ensure his presence is demanded in the courts of all the world’s leaders, giving him firsthand view of world events unfolding that’s a little too convenient as a narrative device. He’s also curiously underrealised, a little too keen to hide himself (or be hidden) behind the cascade of archaic and anachronistic verbiage. In combination with the cavalcade of other characters, this makes it a little too hard to pin down the heart of the book. Whose story is it? If the narrator is going to absent themselves, there are by my count at least four other characters who could reasonably claim the role of principal. To be fair, Mycroft does explicitly address this in one of his many, many asides to the reader, but you can only hang a lampshade on so many things before it all becomes a little too tiresome.

The most egregious of these asides, and easily the biggest little too, involve, oddly enough, pronouns. As a sociolinguist (or someone with serious pretentions in that direction, at least), this makes my heart soar, but as a reader it very quickly came to make my teeth grit. The book’s considerations of the semiotics of gender—its presentation, performance, and coding—are perhaps necessarily provocative, but are also beaten into the ground way past the point of indulgence. The conceit is that in the period in which Mycroft is writing, gendered pronouns are considered taboo in the same way we might currently consider racial epithets, a taboo which even extends to non-linguistic coding of gender: everyone is referred to as ‘they’ and wears unisex clothing, at least in public.

So far so good, but in presenting this tale in a deliberately anachronistic style, the narrator’s also (re)adopted ‘he’ and ‘she’, and assigns them to characters based on behavior rather than biology. The first few times you encounter statements such as "Chagatai's silvered stubble glistened as she smiled" it provokes mental double takes in exactly the way you suspect it was supposed to. The reader is then faced with either falling back into tradition and trying to work out who’s what based on the hints they’re offered, or taking a more progressive position and just rolling with it, while, of course noting how the incongruities still jump out enough to make this problematization of their assumptions warranted in the first place.

Unfortunately, neither narrator nor author can let it lie: the biological sex of every significant character who Mycroft chooses to reverse-code (for want of a better phrase) gets explicitly defined in one of those self-satisfied asides, frequently mere paragraphs after their introduction. It’s almost like they’re trying for the thing where a tired gag is repeated over and over until the sheer repetition makes it funny once more, but with interest instead of humour. It doesn’t work, and more damagingly it has the effect of reducing a genuinely worthwhile conversation to little more than a mildly puerile “guess the sex” parlour game. Pin the Tail on the Dong, if you like, only your hosts nags you to play even if you hadn’t wanted too, and then after every round crows about how he turned the picture upside down while you were blindfolded, you credulous fool.

This effect is exacerbated by the plot, which is a little too absent. The story revolves around the theft of a who’s who list (which, for reasons that are never convincingly established, is a Big Deal), a related investigation of the bash’ (kinship group) who control the ‘car’ transport network upon which the global economy depends, and a miracle child who may or may not be the messiah. There’s a lot going on, when looked at point by point, but in amongst all the worldbuilding and philosophy there’s precious little action of significance; it’s only in the final 30 pages that anything like tension occurs, that you start to actually care what happens to any of these many people. I’d suggest that the preceding 400 pages are a lot to expect people to get through before the story starts in earnest; in media res it is not.

So, this is a frequently irritating book that fails to live up to the promise of its pretentions. But if you’re going to fail, you may as well fail spectacularly, you may as well fail while promising something big. For all that Too Like the Lightning is often deeply, deeply silly, it’s also extremely erudite; there’s a lot of good stuff to get your teeth into, should you feel so inclined. It’s reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, not just in the proximity of their inspirational eras, but also in the awkwardly abundant proliferation of ideas. To give just one, incredibly minor example: The Enlightenment gave birth (ere it lightened?) to the Industrial Revolution, of which railways were a key product and cause, spurring both greater interconnectedness and, paradoxically, greater division. Through enabling the linkages between manufacturers and their markets, they drove further specialisation and stratification of not just the production line, but the manufacturing process, and society itself, while also enriching and empowering the tycoons who controlled them. (Tycoon, of course, is originally a loanword from Japanese. One of the main characters is nicknamed Tai-kun by his Japanese father figure. I refer you to the previous point about significant names.) The ‘cars’ controlled by the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ are a clear analogue to this, in both their wider societal effects and the power politics they engender. The book is full to bursting with intriguing avenues like this, and, less happily, burst it often does.

I can very easily believe that every one of the effects I’ve groused about here was entirely deliberate; Palmer is clearly smart enough to have made her authorial decisions with proper cognizance of their likely effects. The constant harping on biological gender, for example, could very well be depressingly familiar to non-binary individuals making their way in the real world. I'm not sure the best way to highlight that is by perpetuating it, however.  What the writer intends and what the reader takes away are often very different things; in isolation, any one of these issues would have been fine, but the cumulative effect is of an intellectual strobe light: fun to play with, but unconducive to sustained focus—it distracts as much as it illuminates. It’s all just a little too much, and yet, somehow, not quite enough.

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”

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